Saudi Students Flood in as U.S. Reopens Door
Dressed in caps and gowns, the college students packing a graduation ceremony in suburban Washington, D.C., acted like excited graduates anywhere in the United States.
Except, perhaps, when the men broke into tribal line dances. Or when the women, wearing headscarves, burst forth with zagareet, soaring trills of their tongues, in celebration.
The more than 300 graduates gathered at a hotel overlooking the Potomac River were all from Saudi Arabia, part of a massive government-paid foreign study program to earn bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees and return home to help run their country.
“You are the best of the best, and the future of our country,” Saudi Arabia’s cultural attaché, Mohammed al Issa, declared at the May event.
In the years following the security crackdown on Arab travelers after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks—in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi Arabian—tough restrictions kept most Arab students away from the U.S. In 2004, only about 1,000 Saudis were studying in the U.S., according to the U.S. State Department.
This past school year, Saudi Arabia sent 66,000 students to U.S. universities, four times the number before the 2001 attacks and the fastest-growing source of foreign students in the U.S., ahead of China, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Saudi influx is part of a broader increase in international students in the U.S. as American universities seek to raise tuition revenues. Some 723,277 foreign students enrolled during the 2010-2011 school year, up 32% from a decade ago.
“With the financial crunch…the [U.S.] administrators look to the international students to a degree as saviors,” said Michael Launius, vice president of international students at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash., where Saudi enrollment has jumped from nothing in 2005 to about 150 this past school year.